The Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is a longstanding tourist attraction in Hernando County, but a study has shown that it may be too popular.
A report by Wood Environmental and Infrastructure Solutions showed that recreational use of the Weeki Wachee River has led to negative environmental impacts.
The state park offers various activities like kayaking, but the park now finds itself in a bind: the more people who come, the more damage is done to the river.
“For generations, the river has been a place to cool off during hot summer months,” Resource Management Director Jennette Seachrist said in an op-ed published by the Tampa Bay Times. “However, as Florida’s population has increased, so has the number of people who recreate on the river… Unfortunately, this unique treasure is so popular that it is in real danger of being loved to death.”
The study, conducted from July 2018 to June 2019, was included in the Weeki Wachee River Surface Water Improvement and Management Plan. Time-lapse cameras captured recreational use at sites along the river looking for direct impacts to the natural system, such as prop scars and uprooting of vegetation or unnatural movement of sand.
The study told of users who mostly unintentionally, but very effectively, degraded the shoreline by walking on the shoreline, dragging boats and climbing up the riverbanks, which results kicking up silt and eroding the river floor and plant life under the surface.
The study said that the river started showing decay between 2008 and 2011, and by 2016, many of the river banks were nearly bare of vegetation and showed massive stress and erosion as the river continued to attract vacationers from around the state and the country.
“Equally important — or perhaps more important than the number of boats, kayaks, and paddle boards — is the way in which people recreate,” Seachrist said.
Though the river is considered to be overcrowded, the study doesn’t recommend specific limits on the number of people or boats, but instead on educating those who use the river to be more wary of their actions and the consequences on the environment.
Other changes in the future may include limiting areas where people can get out of their boats as well as the kinds of vessels they can use in some portions of the river.
Governing and enforcing the changes will be complex, with numerous agencies involved in overseeing the river. The Southwest Florida Water Management District, Hernando County, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission all play a role in protecting the river.
“This working group would be composed of the water management district and agencies with the authority to implement changes that strike the right balance of education, regulation and restoration to ensure this unique treasure is protected for future generations,” Seachrist said.